Bottoms Up: Three Conversations about Aging

I’ve been thinking a lot about aging and the music business, mainly because I’m aging and I’m in the music business. A few weeks ago, I had three age-related conversations on the same day.  Meet Bob, Fred, and Jörg Achim, three of my musical heroes.

Conversation #1: Bob

“I’m so old Stephen Foster was my first duo partner.”

This is one of Bob’s lines—a joke he pulls out of his trap case whenever the topic of old age comes up. He used to tell this joke about other musicians. Now, approaching his eighty-fifth birthday, he tells it about himself.

“I’m so old my wife says I make the same sounds as the the coffee maker.”

“Did you write that joke?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I am a thief of bad gags.”

Bob is my father and he’s still playing gigs. He’s the proud owner of two drum sets (a faded greenish-blue Premier and a silver sparkle Ludwig), two new hips (also silver sparkle), a collection of ancient Zildjian cymbals, and a vast repertoire of funny stories.  Today he has received a call from a perky young woman (let’s call her Becky) who wants to book him—a year in advance—for a gig in February 2020. The gig is at a fancy-pants senior residence, the kind of venue where Bob’s band, a sophisticated mix of great music and comedy, tends to be a big hit.

“I told Becky the date will be fine,” Bob tells me. “And then she wants to know if I have video. Video? What the hell does she want video for?”

“Well,” I say, “that’s how people book bands these days.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. But no way am I making a video at my age. I told Becky, ‘look, I’m almost eighty-five; I’m really good at what I do even though I’m not exactly sure what it is. I have no video. No video!’ I asked her where she got my name and she said that the Saint Barnabus senior center told her we were the absolutely the best band in the world for the gig. And I said, ‘you still need video after that recommendation?’ ”

“And?”

“Get this: She wanted to know if it was ‘safe’ to book me that far in advance.”

“Because you’re almost eighty-five.”

“Because I’m almost eighty-five.”

“Dad, please don’t tell me you hit her with the Stephen Foster joke.”

“Of course I did. But she didn’t laugh—probably never heard of Stephen Foster—so I kept going. ‘Becky,’ I said, ‘I’m so old I don’t even buy green bananas. I’m so old my social security number is thirteen.  I’m so old John Philip Sousa was my roommate at music school.  I need 10 strokes to play a 5 stroke roll. It takes me a half hour to play “The Minute Waltz.” I’m so old I was in the house band at Ford’s Theater.  One of my students was the drummer boy in Pickett’s charge. I’m so old I’ve seen Halley’s comet three times.’ ”

“Stop!” I say.

“Funny stuff, right? But Becky didn’t laugh. Not once. Can you imagine? Event planners these days have no sense of humor. But I kept going—I said  ‘at my age everything is either dried up or it leaks . . .’  You know me. I’ve got a million old age jokes.”

“So what happened?”

“I think I wore her down. She gave me the gig. Now all I have to do is stay alive. Hey, did you know my Slingerland high-hat stand lasted longer than my hips?”

Conversation #2: Fred (and Bud)

photo by P. Marion

“Did I ever tell you about the whiskey and the beet juice? It was horrible,” says Fred (maybe not his real name), describing an evening—fifteen years ago—that started out as a good-natured whiskey tasting but turned into a woozy-doozy, tilt-a-whirl, fall-down-in-a-dead-faint night. Fred, a trombone player, and his buddy, Bud, also a trombone player, are now middle-aged. At the time of the whiskey incident, they were bandmates, sitting side by side in the same trombone section.

Fred and I huddle in a corner at a crowded post-concert reception for musicians and (way too many) friends. Because I often write goofy, true stories about musicians and gigs gone wrong, I hear many tales of youthful abandon, some of them involving alcohol. But the one about the whiskey and the beet juice grabs my attention. I’m intrigued, because I knew the story will not end well. I have always been a sucker for trombone humor and boyish folly.

Please note: Fred and Bud currently lead role-model lives as successful, working musicians. They are smart, funny, disciplined trombonists with mind-blowing talent. The following incident was a youthful misstep on a path to respectability. We’ve all been there. Sort of.

“It was Christmas time,” says Fred. “Bud and I left rehearsal and decided to do a little seasonal whiskey tasting. Just a little. Harmless. And fun. But one thing led to the next and before we knew it, we were really, really drunk. Tanked.”

“Yes,” I say. “Whiskey will do that.”

“I crashed at Bud’s house so I could walk to the gig the next morning. We were scheduled to record that day. I woke up feeling terrible, just terrible, like I was gonna die. The mother of all hangovers. And Bud convinced me to drink some freshly-pressed beet juice—he said it was the world’s best hangover remedy.”

“Beet juice? Was he crazy? So what happened? Did it help?”

“I guzzled half a liter of the damn beet juice. Bud and I arrived at the studio. I was feeling worse and worse. And the first tune the conductor called was ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ which, sadly, featured me.”

“Solo?”

“Solo.”

“Yuletide cheer.”

“All that shit.”

“Like your job isn’t hard enough without a hangover.”

“I was dying. I knew I was gonna throw up, but I felt like I had to get through the damn piece, since, you know, we were recording.”

“Did you make it?”

“I got halfway through the solo and the beet juice started coming up, but I kept playing.”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yeah. Right in the middle of the bridge—right in the faithful friends gather near to us part—it started shooting out the sides of my mouth. Looked like I was hemorrhaging or something. I was using a Humes & Berg Velvetone mute—we call it a bucket mute. It’s nice and white and fluffy on the inside. But not that day—the beet juice got all over the mute. So much for white and fluffy.”

“Did anyone notice?”

“Bud noticed. He could hardly play ’cause he was laughing his ass off. But the other musicians were all dealing with their own issues. Anyway, when the tune was over, I raced to the men’s room and hurled the beet juice all over the floor. Looked like someone had been murdered in there.”

“Bathtub scene in Scarface?”

“Worse.”

“Why have I never heard this story?” Fred and I have been friends forever.

“I forced myself to forget about it. But we’ve had a trombone sub this week. New kid on the block. Young. And the kid looked at my bucket mute and seemed confused by the weird color. I realized that—all these years later—the white and fluffy part still has beet juice stains. So I told him the story.”

“Sort of like a warning?“ I ask.

“No. Warnings won’t help. He’s young. He’ll make his own stupid mistakes. He’ll stain his own bucket.”

“Part of growing up,” I say. “Thank God those days are behind us.”

“Yeah,” says Fred. “Something like that.”

Conversation #3: Jörg Achim

“That was a masterful concert,” I say to the conductor of tonight’s program, Jörg Achim Keller. “You share such a cool history with the musicians in this band—you really know how to write for them.”

After my harrowing talk with Fred, I have shuffled my way to the other side of the cocktail party, a large glass of sparkling water in my hand, thinking about my own long-ago drunken episodes. At least I never threw up into my instrument. Jeez. Forget whiskey. Fred has absolutely ruined freshly-pressed beet juice for me.

So. Jörg Achim and I talk briefly about his connection to several of the musicians in tonight’s ensemble. “You really know your musicians. Not just musically, but personally. That kind of history is like gold,” I say.

Jörg Achim asks me about my job as a cocktail lounge musician. “How often do you play at the hotel?”

“Three days a week, sometimes more. Last year I played close to two hundred gigs.”

“That’s a lot of solo piano.”

At this point another person slides into the conversation.

“Don’t you get lonely sitting at the piano by yourself?” she says, making a sad face. Ah, the well-meaning interloper.

“No! It’s the best job in the world.” I often find myself defending my profession as a background musician. “I play an excellent Steinway, I play the music I want to hear, the audience is constantly changing, I can work on new material or play my older compositions.  I’ve been doing this for forty years. Why should I be lonely?”

“Forty years?” She looks appalled, as if I’ve told her I’ve spent forty years digging ditches or slinging hash.

“Yes. Forty years. More actually. I had my first gig when I was eighteen.” I almost say I’m so old I was the lounge pianist on the Mayflower, but I stop myself.

“That’s a long time. So, do you practice on the job?” she asks.

“No!” I say.

Jörg Achim jumps in: “Hey, there’s a lot of value to playing a background music job for that long. For one thing, the bottom comes up.”

“Say that again, please.”  I think I understand what he’s saying, but I’m not sure.

“Yeah—when you’re playing so often in front of people, your worst moments get less noticeable. The bottom comes up, so to speak. In my opinion, that’s the best way to assess someone’s playing—not by their flashes of genius, but by their worst moments. Even a complete amateur can have sparks of brilliance. But how low is their bottom? Pretty low, usually. With your line of work—decades of playing for an audience in a no-pressure situation, the bottom keeps getting higher and higher.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I like that. Bottoms up. One of the benefits of aging.”

***

Later tonight, after I’m home and trying to stitch together the tatters of the day, I wonder if Jörg Achim’s bottoms up theory might not apply to life in general. We all make mistakes as adults, but as we mature, we learn to tap-dance around actions that have made us look, sound, or feel bad in the not-so-distant past. Like whiskey and beet juice, for instance.

I’m over sixty and lead a pretty respectable life, which is saying something considering my spotty history as a Chopin-playing stripper and teen-scream horror-queen film star (whose chopped-off head ends up in a toilet). My bottom has continued to rise, ever so slightly, over the course of six decades. I’ve stopped taking on tasks that confound me or cause grief. I’ve climbed out of professional and private trenches, scraped the dirt out from underneath my Piano Girl fingernails, and kept moving forward, eyes scanning the pavement (and the piano) for patches of treachery. Sometimes I miss the extreme risk-taking of my youth, but these days I love feeling safe, cradled in contentment’s soft underbelly, venturing out now and then to explore new, unthreatening territory. My bad, artistically and personally, has gotten pretty good. Bottoms up.

Maybe we don’t need 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery—maybe we need 10,000 hours to raise the bottom. Or maybe it’s the same thing. However you look at it, you can’t get there without growing older.

I wonder what Stephen Foster or John Philip Sousa would say on this topic—I’ll have to get Bob to ask them. They often get together for a jam session. Then they go fishing.

Whiskey for everyone. Just a little.

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel.  New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist. Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms.

Personal note from RMG: I spent much of my summer holiday sorting through recordings and I’ve come up with a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

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Limelight

Give Me the Night.

In 1982 Dale Cinski was twelve-years old and obsessed with the guitar. He idolized George Benson and tried to imitate his style by listening to and playing along with George’s records. With the help of his cousin, drummer Spider Rondinelli, Dale copped tickets to a Benson concert at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh. He wrangled his way backstage and told George how much he loved playing the Ibanez GB-10 (Benson’s signature guitar). Two years later, Dale–exhibiting an unusual amount of pluck for a teen guitarist—showed up at George’s hotel and played a song called “Being With You” from Benson’s In Your Eyes album.

“Man,” said George to Dale, “You’ve got some chops.”

Boom. George Benson became Dale Cinski’s mentor.

Uncle George is now seventy-five. Dale is forty-eight. They visit each other at George’s home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, hang out whenever George is in Pittsburgh, and stay in touch on the phone. The two of them have played a gazillion notes over the last three decades—George in stadiums and the world’s best concert halls, Dale in decidedly more modest venues.

Dale—married to my sister, Badass Randy—is a welcome addition to our family of rhythm section players. John (my husband), Randy, Dale, and I arrived in Paris on Sunday to attend George’s concert, cancelled at the last minute due to George’s gorge irritée (sore throat). Oh, the perils and responsibilities of fame. Like most musicians, if I get sick, I either soldier through the gig or call a sub and lose a few hundred bucks. No one throws a fit. When George cancels, he disappoints throngs of fans, loses tens of thousands of dollars, and causes his entire touring company to fall into panic mode. That’s a lot of pressure for one aging guitar player.

The older I get, the more I respect the tenacity required to balance prominence with virtuosity. George Benson is clearly an artist dedicated to the craft of making music, but he’s also a stalwart celebrity, keen on maintaining his judiciously-groomed notoriety.  George has been walking the celebrity tightrope for decades and, aside from the current gorge irritée, has remained ready, steady, and in the game. I can’t wait to meet him.

I truly admire musicians—famous or not—with careers that span decades. As my dad likes to point out: “It’s easy to have a hit; it’s much more difficult to have a career.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with a hit.

We make our own fun in Paris while we wait for George’s voice to return. We know we won’t get to hear a concert, but at least—thanks to Dale—we’ll get to hang out with him. Julia, my photographer daughter, joins us so she can spend more time with Randy and Dale. The five of us visit the steamy grounds of the Louvre, wander through the scorched Jardin des Tuileries, gaze at the Monet water lily panels at Musée de l’Orangerie, and spend two hundred Euros on falafel at an upscale Lebanese restaurant that caters to the rare, starving vegan stumbling through city lanes in search of sustenance. To escape the extreme heat, we book a Canal Saint-Martin river rat cruise and find ourselves—after passing through a dozen antiquated but functional locks—floating underneath city streets with shards of daylight cutting through circular overhead windows. It’s the coolest I’ve been in a month and despite the gloom, doom, and musty-dusty-rusty smell of it all, I’m happy.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Two days after the missed concert, George calls Dale and schedules a cocktail-party meet and greet for all of us. Julia opts out so she can go search for rumored Banksy paintings recently sighted on Paris streets. We jump in an Uber and arrive at the hotel where the band is staying. George’s voice has returned. He’s thrilled to see Dale again, and happy to talk to all of us about music and life; the gig he played with John and Lionel Hampton at Carnegie Hall back in the eighties; the Crawford Grill and his Pittsburgh roots; about his dear mother, a nurse, who once cared for my father in a Pittsburgh hospital; about the music business in Germany.

After a low-key, but inspirational hour with him we’re joined by a couple of George’s rhythm section players, most notably bassist Stanley Banks, who has held down the low end of Benson’s sound for decades. Stanley has recently lost over 100 pounds by eating raw vegan food, so our conversation veers back and forth between bass lines and recipes for almond milk smoothies.

 

Stanley Banks and John Goldsby

As the evening stretches out, two teenage gypsy-guitar players show up to play for George, each of them out Django-ing the other. George cheers them on, offers a few tips, and suggests alternate changes to the tune. Then George plays for the kids. What a thing—a legendary guitarist giving a master class in a Paris bar.

“This is what he does,” Dale says to me. “He helps young musicians. These kids are like me, thirty five years ago. They’re never going to forget this night.”

I turn to George and express my admiration and he says: “Hey baby, these kids are the future of music. It’s my duty to guide them.”

Go, George.

The hotel lounge is now full of fans and friends, clustered around Uncle George and hanging on every note. It’s a scene. At my request (and with Stanley’s urging), he plays his version of “People,” even though other guests in the bar—unaware there’s a superstar playing a private concert for anyone who wants to listen—complain that they can’t hear the television broadcast of the World Cup soccer match.

“The music is too loud!” says one of them.

“You’re blocking the television!” says another.

George graciously picks up the bar tab and we go to dinner with his entourage, including the Benson management team, the Gypsy-guitar brothers, a nightclub promoter, and two lovely—but slightly desperate—young women who appear to be from an escort agency. We dine at a Japanese places (close to the Avenue des Champs-Élysées) where everyone sits around a grill and a ninja chef throws meat and fish in the air before chopping it with the French version of the Ginsu knife.

After dinner, the promoter invites us to a trendy nightclub around the corner. It’s one of those velvet rope places with beautiful, thin, Europeans in fifty shades of anthracite. They slouch, lurk, and look bored, chic, and perfect. We, on the other hand, are a mixed bag of fashion do-s and don’t-s. George, our designated celebrity, looks sleek in his cobalt-blue silk jacket and gold medallion, and his team fits right in with their hip gangsta-rapper outfits (one of them has a pirate scarf on his head). As one might expect, the escort girls are decked out in short skirts and high heels. The Gypsy-guitar teenagers look good because they are sixteen, wearing black, and have faces that resemble freshly peeled eggs.  But the chic quotient goes downhill fast when it comes to the rest of us.  Randy and I, in our misguided attempt to make a Boho fashion statement, resemble Great Aunt Edna and her spinster sister Gertie, headed to a hoe-down. Dale’s shirt is floral and foppish and suits him in a Jimmy Buffet meets Sting kind of way. John, in what may be the French fashion faux-pas of the decade, is wearing a Lands End golf shirt and chinos.

Because we are with George, the buff bouncer lifts the velvet rope and lets us cross the threshold. I can’t help but notice that George’s musicians have not joined us for this part of the evening’s festivities. Maybe that’s part of being an A-list sideman. You get to eat a room-service club sandwich and go to bed at a respectable hour.

“I’m trying to channel Rihanna but it’s not working,” I say, worrying whether or not I have sake stains on my dress. “I thought tonight would be a simple bar hang, not a trip to Paris’s most exclusive nightclub.”

“This is so wrong,” says John. “Look at me. I haven’t even mastered the French tuck. I am the middle-aged dad poster guy.”

“Not true, brother,” says Dale. “At this time next week all of Paris will be wearing those Lands End golf shirts. You’ll start a trend. Bass player chic.”

“Plus,” says Randy. “You have fabulous hair.”

“Karl Lagerfeld would cringe,” I say.

“Who’s he?” says John.

With the judgmental eyes of the Paris fashion police upon us, we follow the club promoter and the escort girls through the heavy padded doors, down a padded staircase and into a padded private VIP area best described as a padded velvet womb. It’s the second time today I’ve found myself underneath Paris—once on water, this time on shaky ground.

The club throbs with techno music, the kind of stuff most musicians hate, but here we are, in the VIP section, with strapping male-waiters waving sparklers and pouring huge tumblers of champagne from magnums of Dom Perignon. I am suddenly extremely tired. I should have stayed back at the hotel with Stanley. He’s probably eating a chopped salad and watching CNN. The blaring music rattles my teeth. We have to shout in each other’s ears.

“More bass in the place!” yells John.

“I am thirty years too old and thirty pounds too heavy for this joint,” I say.

“Right!” says John. I like to think he can’t hear me. “This is the kind of place I have spent my life avoiding,” he shouts.

The escort girls start to dance for us. Enough. I join them. I might be sixty and dressed like I stepped out of a 1996 Talbot’s catalog, but I can jiggle my trunk junk with the best of them, especially after consuming a bucket of sake and three-hundred bucks worth of champagne. As my 102-year-old Piano-Girl friend Emily Remington recently said: “I might be old, but I’m not cold.” Screw the sunset and wisdom of age and the Golden Girls and dignity and all that—I’m dancing. The walls are padded and so am I. Randy gets up and joins me. We do the hoochie-koochie dance with our two Parisian escorts. Hoe-down, throw down. John makes a video and sends it to Julia, who, in a classic case of opposite world, is back at the apartment editing photos of French art while her mother is clubbing.

“WTF?” she texts back.

Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack. In spite of the thumping music, the dancing girls, the mini-fireworks, and the champagne, George—having completed his celebrity duties for the evening—takes a nap. It’s not easy being a star. Especially if all you really want to do is play the blues.

Dale looks at George and says to me: “I really love this guy. He means the world to me.”

“Does this happen all the time?” I ask Dale. “The party thing? I mean, why doesn’t George just say no to all this stuff?”

“He can’t,” Dale says. “It’s part of who he is. Every night is a scene—doesn’t matter if it’s Pittsburgh, Paradise Valley or Paris. I don’t know how he holds it together, but he does.”

Dale nudges George awake, embraces him, and says goodbye. Our booty-shake decelerates to a shuffle and we exit the club, stage left. We’ve seen three sides of George tonight: the caring, consummate artist, the educator, and the indomitable celebrity determined to stay in the public eye. I don’t envy his balancing act. Limelight is an unflattering color for most of us. But it suits Mr. Benson.

Two in the morning. I haven’t been out this late since my New York days. I’ve grown soft around the middle, and the hard-lipped edge of the clammy July night rubs me where it hurts.

We return to Cologne the next day. George, made of smoke, mirrors, and a hefty dose of artistic drive and septuagenarian grit, recovers completely and—lifted by the loyalty of his adoring fans and his passion for music—performs his next concert within a week.

*****

Dale Cinski’s music is available on all streaming platforms. Check out his tribute to George tribute here:

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s free newsletter. A new essay every month!

The Bench

Photo by Julia Goldsby

I love Paris. But just once I would like to visit when it is not hot enough to fry an oeuf on the cobblestones.

After our 2017 sun and fun-filled Parisian adventure with Robin Spielberg and Larry Kosson—also known as the sweat your ass off tour de prance—during which time we bravely climbed Montmartre and cheerfully joined drenched throngs of tourists dragging themselves through the scorched gardens of Versailles—I swore I would never again enter a land-locked European metropolis between the months of June and September. All the Aperol Spritz cocktails in the world could not convince me otherwise.

Figures that music would lure me back into the bronzed arms of the city that doesn’t sweat, it glistens. And maybe smells a little. Camembert, you might guess, doesn’t hold up well in the heat. Neither do I.

My sister, Randy, and her guitarist husband, Dale, come to Cologne, Germany, to visit us at the end of June. Built into their trip is an excursion to Paris so we can hang out with jazz-pop superstar George Benson and attend his July 1st concert on the outskirts of the city. My first thought: Paris in July? Pas encore. Uptown whining, I know. Paris is Paris. Drizzle, sizzle, it’s all good.

Background: Dale has been friends with George for decades. George Benson is one of those rare performers who has preserved his musical integrity while maintaining an unblemished celebrity status. The guy is a musical—and business—genius. I’ll risk melting in the French heat for a chance to meet him. Send in the chevre.

My husband, John, books the Thalys (high speed train) from Cologne to Paris and finds an AirBnB apartment big enough for all of us. The apartment is close to the concert venue and within walking distance of a Metro station. Randy has never been to Paris, and even though I know the city will be hotter than the gates of hell, I want to show her the things I love. Gargoyles. The Seine. Monet. Meringue as big as my head.

The day before we leave Cologne for Paris, Dale receives a phone call from George’s manager, saying that George has lost his voice during his Royal Albert Hall performance in London and must cancel the Paris concert. Doctor’s orders. In a career spanning four decades, George has only cancelled two other gigs. As a seventy-five-year-old touring musician, he gets a free pass, I suppose. But the selfish part of me wishes he could get it together to croak out a few tunes—the show must go on, and all that. I once played a Sesame Street program with a stomach virus and had to run into the wings following a rousing rendition of “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” to vomit in a bucket held by a reluctant stage manager. I couldn’t cancel—I needed the money. George probably isn’t concerned with such trivialities at this stage in his career.

What to do. We’ve already paid for the train and apartment. So off we go to the city of blinding light, our trolley bags layered with tissue-thin black dresses, straw hats, and sandals. It’s hard work to look Parisian-chic when you’re having a July-induced hot flash—especially when the entire point of the voyage is meeting a jazz legend who has called in sick.

C’est la vie.

We arrive safely and navigate the Metro—a tubular sauna—to our apartment. Our abode has no air conditioning, no fan, and no toilet paper. Otherwise, it’s quite chic and comfortable. Dale and I take naps while John and Randy investigate the neighborhood and buy toilet paper and French snacks. John also buys me flowers, pink lilies that won’t wilt in the heat. We eat potato chips and drink coffee to revive ourselves.

“Eiffel Tower, anyone?” Since the Benson concert isn’t happening, I figure a trip to the tower might be an appropriate alternative activity and an excellent way to welcome my sister to Paris. First things first.

Dinner.

“We are vegan,” I tell the waiter in French.

“Why?” he replies in English.

I’ve learned to say, “Sans lardons, s’il vous plaît.”  In France, any meal that does not include bacon seems to qualify as vegan. One takes what one can get. Close your eyes and think of tofu.

We jump back on the Metro and head to the Trocadero, my favorite viewing spot for the tower. The Eiffel Tower never fails to thrill me. Legos for adults.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro,” says the first of many African vendors who approach us during the course of the evening. They sell Eiffel Tower keychains, six for one Euro—perfect little travel-friendly souvenirs to take back to kindergarten children, half-witted neighbors, and senior citizens with fading memories of the war. Twenty bucks and you could have cocktail party favors for the next five years.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci. Non, merci. Non, merci.

 These are the first words of French Randy learns to speak. More than this she does not need.

“I wonder what George Benson is doing tonight,” says John, looking out at the swelling crowd.

“I don’t know, but I bet he’s not here,” I say.

“Why not?’ says John. “Everyone else is.”

There’s an accordion player on one side of the Trocadero; a rapper with head-spinning break-dancers on the other. In the middle lane, half-naked daredevils navigate an obstacle course on skateboards and other wheeled devices. This reminds me of a game Randy and I used to play when we were teenagers, called “Let’s Go Die.”

We join the blob of people ambling across the bridge, then shuffle past security checkpoints into the swarm of puffy-shoed holidaymakers standing under the tower.

When I gaze up, I feel tiny.

The early evening sun seems hammered in the sky. People are undressed to suit the heat. Side boob, butt cleavage, full-bikini belly-up outfits—there’s a lot of flesh on display for a city that prides itself on haute couture. No MAGA hats or other Trump-wear, so that’s a plus.

“Side boob?” says John. “Really? That’s a thing?”

“There’s also under-boob,” I say, pointing out a young woman who might as well be topless. My husband and I have reached the marital stage where we point out attractive people to each other.

“Look at that,” I say to John. “It’s Nipple Day at the Eiffel Tower.”

“Bless her heart,” he replies.

I actually enjoy seeing all the body parts hanging out with no one groping or grabbing or even staring much. Josephine Baker would approve. My side-boob days are behind me, but I would truly enjoy wearing a string of bananas around my waist.

A perspiring French gospel choir sings “Stand by Me.” Then they sing “Lean on Me.”  It’s a medley of me songs. Or moi songs.

After reaching the grassy field adjacent to the tower, we search for a place to sit and and wait for the tower lights to come on. What luck! John spots a vacant bench on the edge of the first lawn—prime seating and big enough for the four of us.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

“I will get us something to drink.” In addition to the keychain guys, there are men everywhere selling beverages of questionable origin. But I am parched in Paris and I want wine.

“One glass wine, eight Euros,” says the vendor.

He has no change, so he gives me the entire bottle of rosé swill for ten bucks. We drink a little, but it tastes like French insecticide, so I go to the next bench and offer the remainder of my bottle to a middle-aged American couple. They are from Wisconsin and on their honeymoon. I congratulate them.

“Thank you,” says the wife. “We’re here with my two teenage daughters. We’re a patchwork family now—my girls are from my first marriage. Oh look, here they are!”

Right on cue, two pissed-off teenagers stomp around the corner and fling themselves on the bench.  They are tap-tap-tapping on their devices.

“These are our girls, Brittany and Whitney. Brit and Whit. Girls! Say hello to this nice lady. She’s American!”

I’m not sure if I should salute or take a knee.

“Brittany, I love your hair braided like that,” says the husband to the younger of the two girls.

“WHAT KIND OF SNARKY COMMENT IS THAT SUPPOSED TO BE?” says Brit.

“I mean, it looks pretty. It’s nice to see your face.”

“WHAT ARE YOU, A PERV?” shouts Whit. “LEAVE US ALONE.”

“Come on, Brit and Whit,” says the mom. “Your step-dad is trying to be nice. Isn’t it a beautiful Parisian evening?”

“Perv,” mutters Brit.

“Creep,” says Whit.

Neither one of them looks up. Tap, tap, tap.

I excuse myself and scuttle back to the safety of my own bench.

“I heard that!” says John. “ Awful. Their nice mother brings them to Paris and they can’t even stop playing with their phones long enough to look up at the Eiffel Tower?”

“Maybe they don’t like the step-father,” I say.

“Maybe. But still, they’re in Paris. You’d think they’d show a little gratitude.”

“They’re from Wisconsin,” I say, as if that means anything.

It’s then that Randy points out the man on the bench on the other side of us—a street person dressed in colorful rags and eating a jar of mayonnaise with his fingers. His boots are tied to his feet and a stream of urine runs under his bench. No wonder—in a park crammed with tourists—our bench had been empty.

“Call me crazy, but I think that bum is a fake,” says Randy.

“A fake bum?” I say. “Who would fake being a bum?”

“Look at him. Cleanly shaven. And he’s really handsome.  Movie star handsome. Lenny Kravitz in a bum costume. And his clothes, even though they are bum-like, have a certain colorful, artistic flair.”

“Yeah, well it’s Paris,” says Dale. He’s still disappointed about the Benson laryngitis debacle. Dale has been carrying a book of poetry, wearing a hat that looks slightly French, and is considering smoking a Gauloise to appear more authentic.

“Maybe the bum is an actor studying for a part.”

“Well that’s some realistic sense-memory stuff with the pee and everything,” I say.

“He’s sexy. Hot,” says my sister. “Clean him up and, just saying . . .”

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

Leave it to my sister to conjure a sex fantasy about a French bum.

“Look at those cheekbones,” she says. “And I can tell he’s buff underneath that tattered coat.”

The bum disappears into some bushes, directly behind where we’re sitting.

Regardez!” says Dale. “He has a camp back there. A bum camp.”

“What, for food condiment storage? He surely isn’t using it for a toilet—he has that covered out here.”

“Maybe that’s where he shaves,” says Dale. “His skin is very smooth. You need a really good razor to get a shave that smooth.”

“We should move,” says John.

“Non, non!” my sister and I yell in unison.

“This is prime seating,” Dale says.

I’ll say. We stare straight ahead and wait for the lights. I worry about the bum eating mayonnaise in this heat and getting food poisoning. I worry about the razor. I worry that in his bum camp—a mere five feet away from us—he has a collection of beret-clad heads in a big basket.

“You know, new Banksy paintings were just discovered in Paris,” says John. “Maybe the bum is not a bum. He could be Banksy.”

Perhaps I’m suffering from heatstroke, but I think there’s merit to John’s premise. Banksy, an anonymous street artist, has become wildly famous. I’ve always thought Banksy could be a woman. But I like John’s bum theory.

Recent Banksy art, spotted in Paris.

Having the bum, or Banksy, or whoever he is rustling around in the shrubs behind us makes me anxious; I’m not in the mood to get splattered with urine, mayonnaise, or paint. Or shaving cream.

We hear swishing noises. A rat leaps out of the bushes and darts around our feet.

“Shit!” I yell, as I jump up. “La grosse souris. Le rat.”

Randy, an animal lover, says: “Look how cute he is. Hey there, buddy. So sweet! I think he’s Banksy’s pet. It’s like that Ratatouille movie.”

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

Animals are sacred to my sister. Over the years she has raised horses, dozens of rescued dogs and stray cats, and two enormous Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs named Backhoe and Moser. When she was a kid she trained a hog named Hefner, cared for a tarantula named Bogart, and coaxed Walter the pigeon back to health. Over the years she entertained numerous squirrels, baby birds, mice, and a chimpanzee. While I was learning the lyrics to every Carole King song ever written and memorizing Bach inventions, Randy was working in the Twilight exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo and making friends with the bats.

Randy currently has a collection of large snakes that she uses for therapy sessions at a juvenile detention center in Butler County. We don’t call her Badass Randy for nothing.

Randy and Dale on the bench.

“Look how beautiful the Eiffel Tower is,” says Randy. I am not sure if she’s talking to me or the rat, but she’s clearly enchanted. Stifling heat, a cancelled concert, whining girls, bad rosé, and a fake bum—nothing will get in the way of her infatuation with Paris, at least not tonight.

Meanwhile, next door in teen-scream-horror-queen central we hear Brit-Whit’s mom say: “Look at that sunset! Brit, will you take a photo of your step-dad and me in front of the tower?”

“DO I HAVE TO?” asks Brit.

“Please, honey?”

“OKAY. BUT JUST ONE. THIS IS STUPID. THIS IS A STUPID SHITHOLE CITY.”

You can call Paris a lot of things, but shithole is perhaps not one of them.

“EXACTLY,” says Whit. “THIS PARIS SHITHOLE IS FULL OF CREEPS.”

Creeps? Creeps?

I look at Dale in his French hat, Banksy slouched in his pool of pee, my husband in his sixtieth-anniversary Grammy baseball cap, my sister talking to the rat, the half-naked side-boobed people taking demi-showers in the water fountains meant for drinking, and the Senegalese vendors shuffling through the park with keychains strapped to their arms. I think maybe she has a point.

Paris—from the perspective of a self-absorbed fifteen-year-old American girl—seems full of spooky people. But so does Disneyland. Is there anything more disturbing than those over-fed Americans stuffed into that Small World ride? I think not. Or what about the Wisconsinites who attend sporting events with foam swiss-cheese sculptures strapped to their heads? And don’t even mention SeaWorld, Trump Tower, Vegas, or Graceland. It’s all unnerving. Creepy.

Brit-Whit, trapped in a phase from which they will someday escape, are suspect of everyone, especially what’s unfamiliar or foreign. Hopefully they’ll come to their senses before their patient mother throws herself in the Seine.

“I can’t stand the way these girls are treating their mother,” says John. “Randy—go say something to them.”

“I’ve got this,” says my sister, who has raised four kids of her own. “Too bad I don’t have my snakes with me.”

“Be nice,” I say to my sister. “Remember, once upon a time we were also obnoxious teenagers.”

“Yeah,” she says. “But no one brought us to Paris.”

“True,” I say. “But I did refuse to get out of the car at the Grand Canyon. And you pitched a fit over the captain on that deep sea fishing expedition in Cape Hatteras.”

“That was justified,” she says. “He was holding a machete, leering at my ass, and chopping up chum for sharks.”

Randy brushes me aside and approaches Brit-Whit. “Hi there, girls! Don’t you just love Paris? Your Taylor Swift t-shirts are just darling, although I’m more of a Béyoncé fan. Did you see the tour posters for her new show with Jay Z?”

Nothing. Tap, tap, tap.

“This is my first trip to Europe, too, and I’m almost sixty. And just think, you’re here as teenagers. Aren’t you lucky that your mom brought you along on her honeymoon? How was the wedding? Were you bridesmaids? Did you have cute dresses?”

Scowl.

“How old are you? What are your hobbies? Are you enjoying French food?” Undeterred by their silence, Randy, like a grinning bull terrier, keeps yipping questions at the girls.

“Who’s your favorite artist? Isn’t Paris dazzling? Someday, you will remember this trip as a highlight of your teenage years. Someday, you’ll be really grateful that your mom brought you here.”

“Right,” Brit mumbles. “Shithole.”

“Speak up, honey,” says her mother.

Nothing. Tap, tap, tap.

“Oh. I apologize for the girls—Brit and Whit are still getting used to their step-father and their new siblings.”

“You lucky girls!” says Randy. “A patchwork family means double love!” says Randy. “Double pleasure!”

The creep factor has now gone off the charts. I drag Randy back to our bench before she starts doing “Single Ladies” choreography or asks to take a selfie with the two of them. Later, I will wish we had gotten the photo. We could have captioned it: Thank heaven for little girls.

Banksy the bum returns to his bench with a new jar of mayo.

At last. The tower begins to blush and smolder in the dusky sky. Our accidental neighbors have now become a pesky, but central part of our George Benson-less impromptu evening. We’re not where we intended to be, but maybe we’ve landed in exactly the right place—stuck between a movie-star handsome French derelict and a dysfunctional family from Wisconsin—watching the Eiffel Tower lights effervesce like a shaken bottle of cheap champagne.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star. Sizzle, crackle, creep. That’s Paris for you, at least during the summer months. Through a twilight prism I see parts of myself in every person here—the mundane, insane, broken, outspoken, rich-bitch, poor-whore, hustling-bustling, glam-scam, defeated, conceited, mistreated, cheated, hell-raising, trailblazing, butt-gazing visitors to one of the world’s most spectacular man-made structures.

Unlike Randy, I do not identify with the rat.

I look around and wonder who else in the crowd feels as grateful as I do right now. Maybe my sister. We could probably join hands and outrun the desperation and beauty surrounding us, but instead we stay in place, bench-bound, and face the full-bodied heat of the city.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

*****

Note: We hang out with George Benson a few days later. But that’s another story. Stay tuned.

Special thanks to my dear friends Deborah and Jon Lillian, who—against the odds—hosted a vegan cocktail party for us in Paris.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s free newsletter. A new essay every month!

A Thousand Words

“The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.”                        Andy Warhol

Scrapbook: A lifetime of photos and memorabilia pasted into an album that will one day jostle for position on a crowded bookshelf, attract some attention at tense family reunions, collect dust, and—a generation or two down the line—land in a dumpster.

Scrapbook to scrapheap. Not very hopeful. Still, we persist with making paper shrines to memories of lost childhoods. Show me a woman who doesn’t collect the flotsam and jetsam of her children’s lives and I’ll show you a woman with ice cubes (and possibly gin) in her veins.

Thinking that someday I’d set up a craft table, sift through the fossils, and create beautiful scrapbooks, I’ve saved every child-related objet d’art and photo. Yet another project fermenting in my vault of good intentions.

I’m not particularly clever with cutting and pasting. Once, in a German Kindergarten, while attending a mother-child Bastel session with my four-year-old son, I glued my knees together while making a paper lantern shaped like an owl. My only pair of Donna Karan black tights—purchased and shipped by my sister from Pittsburgh to Germany—fell victim to a hot glue gun. At the time it seemed tragic.

Recently, on a sorting mission that felt like a Kodak-inspired archeological dig, I found a photo of my son with that lantern. Proud. Grinning. You would never guess that the two of us had struggled and bickered for hours, trying to glue the sides of the owl together. The photo tells one story, my memory tells another.

So many contemporary parents watch their children grow up on an iPhone screen. It’s one thing to snag a fabulous image—look, there’s little Wolfgang holding his judo trophy—but quite another to maintain the memory of what led to his moment of glory on the podium (Wolfgang intentionally throwing a toy Batmobile across the playground and hitting little Heidi, his fiercest competitor, on the forehead, thus knocking her out of the contest and assuring his victory). The digital image shows the kid’s triumph, the story behind it tells us where he’s headed as an adult. If a parent’s eyes are glued to the camera function of her phone, she misses the backstory. Maybe she even misses the truth.

I didn’t miss much. My kids grew up during a time when taking a picture meant using a real camera, having prints made, and sorting through stacks of candid photos where someone looks a little “off”— hillbilly-ish or clunky or creepy. I wish now I had kept those Deliverance photos. Even without filters, we’re a little too slick  in the ones that made the cut. Vanity, thy name is mama.

When Curtis and Julia (not to be confused with Wolfgang and Heidi) were first born—before the advent of cloud storage, phone cameras, and online sharing—I dutifully photographed benchmark occasions, printed the photos, selected the beauty shots, and stuck them in big handsome albums with tissue between the pages.  I considered this part of my job description. For about five years, I was a stay-at-home mom, the purveyor of healthy lunches and messy craft projects—involving glitter, clay, and yarn—for willing and unwilling children. I was the queen of potty-training and Fun Outings for toddlers. Who could ever forget the trip to the monkey park—where the apes run free!—when one macaque landed on my head to distract me while another stole my popcorn. We have photographic evidence of the day. Happily, no one contracted Hepatitis.

“I have no time for scrapbooking!” I finally shouted.  I balanced coffee-fueled days with wine-pickled nights and used any available spare time for napping or playing the piano. I fell down on the scrapbooking job, and because I was too busy living, I stopped cataloging our lives. I snapped the required photos, had the prints made, but skipped the cutting and pasting portion of the program.

Confession: I trashed the chubby-mom images, tossed the rest of the prints into an old shoebox (Prada, but still), and told myself that one day I’d get around to labeling and editing the scraps of my children’s lives.

It’s astonishing how quickly twenty years can pass. Both of our adult kids left home last year. Luckily there are no snapshots of me—the cliché lonely mom—when the kids departed for good. Melancholy doesn’t photograph well, even if you face-tune the puffy eyes and mascara-streaked cheeks. I’m okay now, just a little shell-shocked that their childhoods went by so quickly. Time might not fly, but it’s certainly capable of knocking a mature woman flat on her ass when—like a laughing macaque with a looted bag of popcorn—it whizzes past.

The shoebox had become two, then three, then a dozen shoeboxes. Eventually I replaced the stack of boxes with a huge wicker trunk. Burrowing into it after twenty years was traumatic, joyful, and full of tear-choked flashes that started behind my eyes and sprinted to my heart. In the middle of the project, I skidded to a stop, called timeout, and wrote a piece of music.

The overflowing trunk revealed artifacts that started with the birth of my children and ended with their college graduations, with side trips through my husband’s career and mine. I had always known it was important to collect the scraps of my family’s treasured moments, but I had never known why. Turns out that the candid snapshots, posed family portraits, birthday cards, scribbled notes, and muddy, watercolor canvasses have rescued me. As I sorted through two decades of this stuff, I recalled the best, most challenging years of my life. And I’ve realized that where I am, right now, is pretty wonderful.

A snapshot nudges a memory; a memory adds another straw to a vacated nest; the nest fills with words and music and pictures and love. Eventually, the empty nest becomes a full—and grateful— heart.

In most of the photos I am trying to look brave, calm, and thin; my husband, the world’s best father,  looks like he would rather be playing the bass; my children are generally squirming or skooting away from me.

I swing from one recollection to the next: the swimming lessons, bike rides, vacations, first days of every school year (always by the same tree), birthday parties, field trips, recitals, concerts, graduations, more graduations, courageous smiles at airport check-in counters. Each picture is worth at least a thousand words, most of them saying farewell.

The images slow-dance before my eyes and swirl into a fuzzy-edged collage of goodbyes: the first steps, waves, growth spurts, hormones, the toasts and diplomas and trips abroad. My slapdash anthology offers stability in an unpredictable world—a shimmering thread linking frozen images of my flawed, loving family to memories both mundane and profound.

Suggested caption for the whole damn collection: Go on now—keep moving forward. Be big and strong and laugh as much as you can. Live.

We were the Goldsbys. We still are.

Paint a picture for me,

Use the colors that I love,

Paint the seasons of my life in harmony,

A career that’s breaking through, and a villa with a view,

A Technicolor rainbow and me.

Paint a picture for me,

Add a child or maybe two,

And a hundred yellow roses I can hold,

We’re dressed in Ralph Lauren; we’re smiling now and then,

We’re rich and thin and never will grow old.

Paint a picture for me,

Add a mountain and field,

Paint the sunrise; paint a river; paint the birds,

Add a horse or maybe two, and a sky that’s painted blue,

And my picture might be worth a thousand words.

Picture perfect,

Paint it over for me,

Paint it over and over again.

I should paint it all myself,

Impressions, memories,

I’ll try to paint a life that’s long and slow,

Add a tunnel and a light, or the way day turns to night,

The beauty of not knowing where to go.

 Picture perfect,

Paint it over for me,

Paint it over and over again.

*****

“Picture Perfect”  is a lyric by Robin Meloy Goldsby; music by Jessica Gall, and Robert Matt. Performed by Jessica Gall on Herzog Records. Available on all streaming channels.

Photos courtesy of the Goldsby scrapbook. We have no idea who the photographers were. But we thank them.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s free newsletter. A new essay every month!

Emma

I’ve been thinking a lot about Emma González and the circumstances that plunged her into the bright, white spotlight reserved for America’s budding leaders, shooting stars, and civic heroes. I applaud her valor and admire her authenticity, but I mourn for the childhood she forfeited—the self-consumed teenage years snatched from her by shameful gun laws and a mentally-ill boy with access to a bullet-spraying machine.

When I was Emma’s age I stayed busy writing bad poetry and playing the piano. My most valued possessions included a mini-skirt, a maxi-coat, and a perfect black turtleneck (remember the dickie?). My hair was shiny and long. I obsessed over shoes. I poured baby oil and iodine on my alabaster skin and baked myself, summer after summer, in an attempt to look like the mahogany Coppertone girl, the one with the puppy yanking down her swimsuit. I wrote ooh baby, baby song lyrics about sunsets and a boy named Mark. I was deadly serious about my hobbies and passions and truly believed—like most teenagers—that the world’s eyes were judging me.

Emma González no longer has time to fret about tan lines, wardrobe issues, or the way the sun bounces on the horizon. Maybe she never did. On the day of the Margory Stoneman Douglas shooting, Emma was in the auditorium with dozens of other students when the fire alarm sounded. For two hours, she hid in the auditorium with classmates and friends—until police told students to vacate the building. Emma—faster than you can shout “we call BS—became an American activist and advocate for gun control, co-founding the advocacy group #NeverAgainMSD.

What happened to her childhood? Poof. Gone with the rhythmic, deadly clatter of a weapon designed for a killing field.

*****

It’s a myth that all kids love high school and enjoy an easy-breezy few years cheering for football teams, trying to get high, and attending proms.  In my early years of high school, I got bullied by the kind of mean girls who populate every generation: hard-edged, resting-bitch-faced, hormone-imbalanced strutters who stomp around the high school cafeteria like a Clearasil mafia. A gang of angry girls once dragged me down the steps by my hair because I lived in the wrong neighborhood. At least they weren’t packing heat. I’m sure, with access to a semi-automatic weapon, one of them might have considered shooting me—they hated me that much. Teenagers torture themselves in different ways. Part of me thought I deserved their disdain.

Whenever the shrill, adolescent voice of insecurity yelled my name, I took refuge at the piano. Composing a new piece of music and figuring out how to play it made me feel in control, confident, and capable. Not capable enough to stare down the NRA, like Emma, but skilled enough to brush off the strutters and regain a sense of purpose.

Emma is a creative writer. She also finds joy in astronomy. Before the shooting, her head might have been in the stars, but—because of her education—she knew how to confront a blank page, take the teen tornado blustering through her brain, and create an orderly, emotionally relevant statement. Catapulted to grief counselor and motivational speaker for a nation of despairing and determined young people, Emma used her writing skills to pull through the tragedy.

Emma is a hero. So are her teachers and parents for giving her the lessons, tools, and artistic freedom to cope.

The shooter had an AR-15, but, in the aftermath of killing, Emma showed up armed with her own artistic arsenal, one that has allowed her to challenge the previous generation’s apathy, the NRA, and the politicians bought and sold by the gun lobby. The MSD High School teenagers astound me. Facing a future smeared by horrific images blistered onto their developing brains, they refuse to give up, give in, or tolerate the sickening chaos that has become the new norm in our government. They have chosen their issue—reasonable limitations on the availability of semi-automatic death weapons to children. They’re facing the need for change by running toward the issue, head on. Run, kids, run.

It’s a different kind of race when unexpected hurdles include bleeding bodies of friends.

I guess the prom will have to wait.

*****

Teenagers like Emma—or your kids or mine—are generally known for rumpled bedrooms, disheveled backpacks, and illogical thinking. In a classic Opposite World scenario, our kids now make more sense than many adults. Our youth are not just marching and taking selfies; they’re collecting names and voting records of politicians controlled by the NRA, mobilizing young people to make a difference at the polls in November, and presenting calm, clearheaded arguments for gun control in high-pressure public forums and at nationally-televised press conferences. Virtuosic grace under pressure. Grief meets bravery meets action.

According to another activist—Congressman John Lewis—the MSD kids are making “good trouble.”

Chaos rules the capitol, whereas ordered, logical thinking guides the actions of MSD High School students—the ones who are still alive. Never underestimate the fortitude of a passionate, teenage survivor carrying the weight of her brothers and sisters on her narrow shoulders.

*****

Some thoughts about chaos and order: A pianist almost always begins with chaos. Before tackling a sonata, fugue, or showstopper from the Great American Songbook, before playing a bebop melody or creating a new-age cushion of sonic comfort, a pianist faces a mess of notes either on the page or in her head—some call them fly shit. The notes swim before her eyes and tease her ears, daring her to embrace mayhem and create beauty.

In an artist’s world, it’s critical to balance the mind’s creative bedlam with logical, systematic, strategic thinking. When starting a project, a composer, painter, poet, or journalist must tango with the disarray of her own imagination. Her over-taxed brain hosts flights of fancy and darkest desolation, joy and hysteria and anguish and confusion. Before she spills her emotional guts onto the blank screen, canvas, or music manuscript paper, she must calm her tormentors, restore order to her subconscious desires, and beat back the distractions and necessary interruptions of real life.

Emma González, at the age of eighteen, has the artist’s required skill set.

Is it too much to ask the same of our government?

The paucity of stability and civility in the United States—brought on by the muddled rants and hateful bombasts of our current president—distresses me. Regardless of political affiliation, most people agree that kindness and respect make progress possible. To move forward, encourage positive change, and save the planet for our children and grandchildren—we must value the kind of creative chaos that is followed by ordered, rational thinking.

Emma has that together. She might be our Malala, rising above ruins and illuminating the path.

I encourage the men and women running our country to take the chaos and necessary distractions cluttering their minds, study a page from the Emma playbook, organize their thoughts, and listen to themselves and each other.

Fact: Kids, in record numbers, are being shot on streets and in schools.  Responsible gun laws could stop many of these tragedies. Instead, our congress turns away. Our commander in chief stays occupied hurling big bags of flaming vitriol at anyone who doesn’t tow the fraying line. Forget—if you can—the firings, porn stars and playmates, or destructive policies; the president’s inability to act in an orderly and civilized manner has perpetuated an avalanche of rudeness, a hurricane of racism,  a wildfire of vulgarity, and a storm(y) front of discontent that seeps, like creeping damp, under our hip, upturned collars.

The shooting continues.

Right now, the government has a chance to heed the words and actions of the #NeverAgainMSD movement founded by Emma and her team of fellow students. Our congress has the opportunity to get one thing right: Stop selling weapons of mass destruction to teens.

I am behind you, Emma González. I wish my generation had been out in front of the gun issue so you could have savored a few more years of poetry, love beads, and hours spent gazing at the darkening sky. But now that you’ve been shoved centerstage, I encourage you to follow the artist’s way. Keep your head in the stars, but make sure you find your way back home to deliver your message. Six minutes of silence? We hear you. We need you. You are who we want to be when we grow up.

#Enough.

*****

Portrait of Emma by Steve Musgrove, graphic artist

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s free newsletter. A new essay every month!

Home and Away

A November sky, dazzling and crisp, frames the silhouette of the Dom, the Gothic cathedral towering over the Excelsior Hotel Ernst in Cologne, Germany, where I play the piano. I am scheduled to perform today for Afternoon Tea. The lobby—an oasis of old-money sophistication—offers a plush shelter for upscale Cologne residents, travelers from distant lands, confident business people, and ladies who lunch.

Home. Away. A little bit of quiet in a noisy world.

I sit at the Steinway, a beautifully restored 1939 Model A. The hotel’s Wintergarten area at this time of day usually hums along at a pleasant, lazy afternoon tempo, but it’s unusually serene right now, a secret sanctuary in a fast-paced city. I play “Home & Away,” the title track of my new album. I coast along with the music, and glide through the autumn afternoon, going nowhere and everywhere all at once. Our guests feel at home here. So do I.

Opalescent shafts of afternoon sun slant through the lobby; the golden walls glow with effortless elegance.

I think about home, about the places I’ve lived and the people I’ve loved. I often compose music about water—the rivers and streams running through my life, and that big salty stretch of Atlantic I’ve crossed so often. Sometimes I imagine the ocean is made up entirely of a voyager’s fragile tears.

“What makes you feel at home?” I ask my daughter, Julia.

“That’s easy,” she says. “Home is any place at all where you feel loved. And understood.”

That is this place for me. When I play this piano, surrounded by guests, friends and colleagues, I feel understood, and—occasionally—loved.

American television legend Mister Rogers, in all his wisdom, used to say this: “Take a moment and think about the people who understand you—the people who have loved you into being the person you are right now.”

Some of them are here with me. Some are far away; some might bump into me only in my dreams. For better or worse, they have made me who I am. My music comes from their love.

When I embrace the places that nourish my soul, when I give myself permission to be loved and understood by those around me, a miracle happens. I may be sitting at a 1939 Steinway in a grand European luxury hotel, but I’ve arrived at a place that warms my heart. I might be away. But here, I’m home.

Zu Hause. Home. At last.

*****

Home & Away   (Deutsch)

Der Novemberhimmel, strahlend hell und frisch, umrahmt die Silhouette des Kölner Doms, der gotischen Kathedrale, die hoch über dem Excelsior Hotel Ernst emporragt. Hier ist mein Arbeitsplatz, hier sitze ich am Flügel.

Heute spiele ich zum Afternoon Tea. Die Lobby – eine Oase der Perfektion alten Geldadels – ist ein vornehmer Rückzugsort für Kölner mit gehobenen Ansprüchen, Reisende aus fernen Ländern, selbstbewusste Geschäftsleute und „ladies who lunch“ – elegante Damen, die sich die Zeit beim Mittagessen vertreiben.

Ein Zuhause. Außerhalb meines Zuhauses. Ein wenig Ruhe in einer lauten Welt.

Ich sitze an einem wunderbar restaurierten Steinway-Flügel, Modell A, Baujahr 1939. Normalerweise summt der Wintergarten des Hotels um diese Tageszeit vor angenehm gemächlicher Geschäftigkeit, aber an diesem Nachmittag ist es ungewöhnlich ruhig – der Raum wirkt wie ein geheimer Zufluchtsort inmitten einer schnelllebigen Stadt. Ich spiele „Home & Away”, das Stück, das den Titel meines neuen Albums trägt. Ich lasse mich mit der Musik treiben und gleite durch den Herbstnachmittag, bewege mich nirgendwohin und überall zugleich. Unsere Gäste fühlen sich hier heimisch. Mir geht es ebenso.

Sanft schillernd fallen die Strahlen der Nachmittagssonne in die Lobby; die goldenen Wände erglühen mit spielerisch leichter Eleganz.

Ich denke an zu Hause, an die Orte, an denen ich gelebt habe, und die Menschen, die ich geliebt habe. Ich komponiere gern Musik über Wasser – die Flüsse und Bäche, die durch mein Leben fließen und diesen weiten, salzigen Atlantik, den ich schon so oft überquert habe. Manchmal stelle ich mir vor, der Ozean bestehe nur aus den Tränen einer Reisenden.

„Was gibt dir das Gefühl, zu Hause zu sein?”, frage ich meine Tochter Julia.

„Das ist einfach”, antwortet sie. „Mein Zuhause ist jeder Ort, an dem ich mich geliebt fühle. Und verstanden.”

Für mich ist das die Lobby im Excelsior Hotel Ernst. Wenn ich auf diesem Flügel spiele, umgeben von Gästen, Freunden und Kollegen, fühle ich mich verstanden – und manchmal sogar geliebt.

Von Fred Rogers, der 2003 verstorbenen amerikanischen Fernsehlegende, stammt der weise Ausspruch: „Halt einen Moment inne und denk an die Menschen, die dich verstehen – die, die dich mit ihrer Liebe zu der Person gemacht habe, die du jetzt bist.”

Manche dieser Menschen sind bei mir. Andere sind weit weg, und manchen begegne ich nur in meinen Träumen. Sie haben mich zu der gemacht, die ich bin, mit allen guten und schlechten Seiten. Meine Musik entsteht aus ihrer Liebe.

Wenn ich die Plätze umarme, die meine Seele nähren, wenn ich mir selbst erlaube, von den Menschen, die mich umgeben, geliebt und verstanden zu werden, dann geschieht ein Wunder. Vielleicht sitze ich gerade in einem prächtigen europäischen Luxushotel an einem Steinway-Flügel, Baujahr 1939 und bin an einem Ort angekommen, der mein Herz erwärmt. Manchmal bin ich unterwegs. Aber hier, hier bin ich zu Hause.

Zu Hause. Home. Endlich.

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Home and AwayGoldsby’s newest solo piano album, available November 26th, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

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Silver

Silver

It takes Oliver Rosen exactly eight and a half minutes to cross the Queensboro Bridge from Long Island City to Manhattan’s East Side. That’s on a good day, when he’s not hung over and doesn’t stop to stare at the jagged skyline. He crosses this bridge six days a week on his way to the Neil Simon Theatre on Fifty-second Street, where he plays flute in the orchestra of a Broadway musical called Meet the Piggies.

Oliver likes to stop in the middle of the bridge and look down at the silvery East River. Today, he jangles the change in his pocket and lets his mind wander. He drops a dime over the side of the bridge and watches it fall. Silver. He remembers icicles and scratched bike fenders; the smoky-silver fur of his favorite cat, Annie; his Aunt Stella’s stiff and puffy hair, shot through with streaks of pewter and pepper; the dented pale silver Plymouth station wagon his father drove for the last two decades of his life; the shiny stainless-steel refrigerator, now in his ex-wife’s kitchen; his daughter’s charm bracelet with sterling trinkets that dangle from her thickening wrist; the Manhattan horizon on a cloudy winter evening, when the city lights buff the tarnished edges of an ordinary sky and turn it into a king’s heaven.

Ten years. Ten years of playing for those fucking pigs. Not that he has anything against pigs. But Oliver Rosen, boy wonder of the Rochester Youth Symphony Orchestra, graduate of the Juilliard School, and prize-winning student of the esteemed Hank Goldberg, had expected more from his career than a ten-year run playing soaring flute lines for a bunch of pigs. Now, approaching his fortieth birthday, he is known in music circles as Pig Guy. He is divorced, living a thousand miles away from his daughter, and trapped in an orchestra pit playing for Broadway’s most beloved musical, whose highlights include an emotional Strauss-inspired waltz titled “This Little Piggy,” and an extravaganza—featuring sixteen pigs and twenty dancers—called “Pork Pie Hoe Down.” For Oliver, playing the show means two hours and eleven minutes of nonstop mind-numbing chromatic runs and trills eight times a week. Audience members tell him the pigs perform amazing tricks while he is playing.

The pedestrian path of the bridge—flecked with bits of fool’s silver—looks endless and open and free, as if Oliver could stroll right into the amalgam of Manhattan’s gaping mouth. But when he stands still, as he does today, the birds and cars and clouds and people and barges and buses and trucks and things that go-go-go make him dizzy with their collective sense of purpose.

Against all odds, Meet the Piggies had opened a few months after 9/11, just as other Broadway shows were closing due to dismal ticket sales. The threat of additional disaster kept tourists home—if terrorists could destroy the Twin Towers, what would stop them from blowing up a theater or two? Some shows stayed open, but panicked Broadway producers feared the worst—empty theaters and lost revenue. The producers of Meet the Piggies, “a delightful musical romp with an unstoppable porcine hero,” went on with the show, determined to protect their investment by encouraging theater lovers to take advantage of discounted tickets. Most of the orchestra members, happy to have jobs, stayed with the show, but the original flutist hired for the gig, convinced that terrorists were targeting the Great White Way, fled to Montana. The musical contractor, desperate to find a virtuoso flutist willing to accompany dancing pigs, called Oliver after getting a recommendation from Hank Goldberg.

“Oliver Rosen is your guy,” said the professor. “He’s an odd sort. Persnickety. He wears a fur vest and these weird green fingerless gloves. And that hair? White guy with an Afro? Please. Or maybe he’s not white, don’t know. Don’t care. Good player. Kind of a misfit, but he plays the heck out of anything you put in front of him. He’s a scanner. He can read fly shit. And I’ve heard he’s still unemployed, which doesn’t surprise me, given his personality. If you can get past the ick factor, you’ll have a great player in your pit.”

The contractor hired Oliver, grateful to find a last-minute replacement who could nail the difficult score. So what if he wore a fur vest?

“The lead pig in the show—her name is Peggy P—speaks through the sound of the flute,” the contractor told Oliver. “Your flute will be the voice of the pig. It’s a tough couple of hours for you, since Peggy P is always onstage, and, basically, she never shuts up.”

Oliver never imagined that a musical about a pig family, especially one that premiered so soon after America’s greatest tragedy, would rescue Broadway, and, in a way, rescue him. Like most freelance musicians in town he was out of work and had been scrambling for gigs that didn’t exist. His wife, frustrated by her temp work in a dental clinic, threatened to take their daughter and leave for Florida—which she did anyway, a few years later—but at least Meet the Piggies had bought Oliver a few years with his family.

Today is Wednesday. Matinee day. Two shows. Four hours and twenty minutes of pig music. It’s lonely in the pit—Oliver’s only companion is the conductor, a stout guy named Brownie. The rest of the orchestra is on the eighth floor of the theater building, connected to what’s happening onstage through a video feed. Oliver keeps one eye on the video, one eye on Brownie, and tries to stay awake and in the zone. He’s not sure how much longer he can stand it. The odor of overripe bananas wafts through the pit every time Brownie raises his baton. But maybe it’s not Brownie. Maybe it’s the pigs.

Oliver stops again and looks at the river. The water heaves downstream, but it’s dull and rigid, reflecting nothing—neither mystery nor magic surges beneath its thick skin. Oliver wonders what would happen if he opened his backpack, assembled his flute, and catapulted it, spear-like, into the river. Maybe it would bounce or float, but more likely it would slice through the pockmarked façade of the murky water and vanish. Another contribution to Manhattan’s moat. No ripples left behind. Gone. Poof. Just like that. Easy. Covered up. Vanished.

He had tried to get other work. Up until five years ago he auditioned for every advertised symphony and opera orchestra job he could find. He was willing to leave New York City. Oliver had come close to landing the second flute position with the Cleveland Orchestra, but lost to a Korean flutist who kicked his ass in the final round of auditions. Two years ago he had a shot at a tour with the rock star Baby. It paid ten grand a week plus expenses. In the end, Baby hired a Spanish flutist who doubled as a flamenco artist. At one point Oliver tried to put together a flute quartet, but the gigs he booked paid barely enough to cover his expenses. He couldn’t afford to quit the Broadway gig; he couldn’t afford to send in a sub. He gave up on finding another music job and stuck with the dancing pigs. His wife and daughter gave up and moved to Orlando, where nothing is silver and everything is pastel. Once a month Oliver sends them money. Once a week he calls. Once a minute he misses them.

While he was still married, he had a brief affair with a substitute trumpet player named Grace. That could have turned into something, but she took a job with the Army Field Band and left town. Maybe later this week he could call her. Track her down. Tell her he got a divorce.

Oliver is the only original member of the orchestra and cast still performing with Meet the Piggies. Other musicians shift to other shows when they get bored, but Oliver, whose saxophone and clarinet skills are abysmal, stays, because no other Broadway show needs a solo flutist. He has seen chorus girls replaced by younger and leaner Broadway hopefuls. He has watched stagehands leave for better-paying jobs. Even the pigs retire after two years. Maybe they go to Florida.

The orchestra pit is covered with a transparent net that keeps the animals from sliding off the raked stage and into Oliver’s lap. It happened once, back in 2008. The pig squealed, the audience howled, Brownie grunted and continued waving his arms. Oliver Rosen didn’t miss a note. He continued playing while a frazzled stagehand soothed the poor pig, attached a leash to her jewel-studded collar, and led her through the bowels of the theater and back to the wings. When she reappeared in the downstage spotlight, glistening and serene in her silver tutu, the audience cheered.

Oliver looks down at the East River one last time, adjusts his backpack, puts on his headset, and listens to the opening phrases of James Galway playing the Allegro Maestoso movement of the Mozart Flute Concerto in G. The music sounds like polished silver—brilliant and old. He has other, newer versions of this music, but he keeps returning to this one.

Oliver Rosen makes it to the other side of the bridge and keeps walking. He’ll arrive at the theater in fifteen minutes if he keeps up his pace.

One more time. He can play this show one more time.

***

Illustration by Julia Goldsby.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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The Pittsburgh Party

Take Me Home, Jimbo

The day after my second concert in South Carolina, I fly through Atlanta on my way to Pittsburgh, where I’m scheduled to perform my Piano Girl program at Chatham University, my alma mater. At this point in my tour I’m less of a Piano Girl and more of a Piano Geezer, but I’m coping.

The show must go on. Curtain up; light the lights. All that.

Pittsburgh, here I come. But first, I must navigate Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and find some dinner. Is this an airport or a theme park? About twelve billion restaurants frame the terminal-scape, most of them offering deep-fried mystery tidbits and liquid cheese. I dodge one of the many airport beep-beep cars—supersized golf carts that carry non-walking passengers (dressed for SeaWorld) and threaten to mow down pedestrians (also dressed for SeaWorld). I wonder if there’s a correlation between liquid fake cheese and increased beep-beep car traffic.

I fight for a table in a bistro with plastic chairs and settle for a sixteen-dollar glass of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay served alongside a soggy salad drizzled with diesel fuel.

Uptown problems, all of them. I am fine, just tired. I whine about wine when I run out of steam. At least my dinner comes on a plate and I don’t have to stand up to eat it. At least I’m not a refugee mother with two children stranded in airport jail waiting to be deported back to a country where chemical bombs are the weapon du jour.

Shape up, I tell myself.

I see six bloated people stuffed in a beep-beep car wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. I wonder where they’re going. Nowhere fast. Epcot, maybe.

Get me out of here.

My flight touches down in Pittsburgh on time—well done, Delta—and I successfully contact my Uber driver. Jimbo, wearing a plaid flannel shirt and a baseball cap covered with Steeler buttons shows up in a no-color Toyota. He pulls on his beard, grunts at me, and looks like he would rather be hunting. I wonder if there’s a rifle in the trunk.

Jimbo drives cautiously. I do not get carsick. Always a plus, especially for Jimbo.

Our car reaches the end of the Fort Pitt tunnel and wham! There’s the Golden Triangle. I’ve been away from Pittsburgh for almost forty years, but the dazzling, jagged skyline reminds me that this peculiar city still feels like home.

“Bootiful, ain’t it?” says Jimbo.

Mark Twain, describing Pittsburgh, once wrote: “With the moon soft and mellow, we sauntered about the mount and looked down on the lake of fire and flame. It looked like a miniature hell with the lid off.”

Twain never met Jimbo.

Hey, yinz guys. I’m back.

Mrs. Brockett

Leslie Brockett is eighty-two—twenty-three years my senior—but one of the most youthful women I know. We met during my college years, when I worked for her husband, Pittsburgh producer Don Brockett. Leslie remains a stable force in my life. She picks me up at my hotel and whisks me to Shadyside where we have lunch at Casbah, a fancy-pants place where you sit in a tent and eat scallops.

Funny thing about my dear friend Leslie—I can be away from her for months, even years at a time, but our conversations—about politics, interior decorating, art, or food—pick right up where we left off. I last saw her in August, before the November political pratfall that placed our country in the smallish hands of a large-ish buffoon. Back then we were hopeful; now we feel doomed. We yap for hours on this topic, poking at what-ifs and why-nots and wondering if Trump supporters, some of whom appear to be decent people, are racist or stupid or both. Then we go to Talbot’s and shop the sale.

Later, we head to Mount Washington. Leslie’s splendid Chatham Village home features an antique carousel pig, some Dutch paintings of sheep, French-country furniture in sun-faded shades of butter and burgundy, and a cat named Boy. We talk into the night and cry our eyes out while streaming the film Moonlight. We say it’s the most important film of the year, especially in this fraught political climate, but agree that it will never win an Oscar. Moonlight tackles big themes by examining small, burdened lives. Too good to win? Seems to be a theme this year in the USA. Quality, in some circles, doesn’t cut it anymore.

I spend the night on Leslie’s down-filled sofa, wrapped in soft linen sheets trimmed with handmade lace. Boy stretches and rifles through my suitcase, looking for catnip toys.

Three days until the concert.

Leslie

Leslie, with her niece, Susie.

The James Laughlin Music Building

Thursday morning I head back to Chatham and read through my script. I’ve put together a new program for the hometown crowd.

Bob and Ann, my parents, arrive at noon. We drive over to the James Laughlin Music Building where we meet Professor Pauline Rovkah, the Ukrainian-born pianist who runs the small music department at Chatham. Sprightly Pauline, wearing a bright yellow dress with matching shoes, looks like a bead of sunshine dropped onto the campus tableau. My black travel clothes weigh me down as the early spring light, fluid and startling, floods the February afternoon.

We enter the building—a hallowed hall haunted by discordant melodies from my past. Pauline shows me several pianos, but the only one suitable for the concert is a 1976 Steinway “D,” the very instrument I played while attending the school almost forty years ago. Back then it was brand new. So was I.

Pauline, whose frothy enthusiasm for music swells and crests like the Black Sea on a windy day, talks a mile a minute (tempo tantrum), and Bob—never one to shy away from a conversation—provides a Pittsburghese counterpoint to her Ukrainian-American chatter by inserting his own funny stories about gigs gone awry. The two of them natter on in the corner while I reacquaint myself with the Steinway. They are either trading stories about mutual Pittsburgh Symphony friends or sharing Borscht recipes.

This piano. Hello old friend; it’s been awhile. Like, four decades. Ah, I remember. A glistening upper register and a brawny bass. Kind of boggy in the middle. So it goes. The technician will arrive tomorrow.

I play. A mixed bag of recollections rips open and spills onto the keyboard. The sacred air inside this place, once home to my early piano frustrations, pulses with the hushed energy of music students past and present.

The piano lures me back to 1976 like a hand-cranked time machine. An audio track of musical train-wreckage—anxiety attacks, fretful lessons and awkward recitals—rewinds in my mind. I studied many things at Chatham, but they had little to do with piano technique or artistic integrity. Mainly, I learned how to celebrate failure—how to take scraps of broken songs and stitch them into the patchwork of imperfect music I want to hear. It has taken me four decades and a lot of multi-continent piano-hopping in non-sensible shoes to figure this out.

Freshly painted in shades of cream and taupe, with towering windows overlooking slanted trees, the James Laughlin Music Building feels like an airy atelier haunted by the singing, taunting ghosts of my youth. I wait for Voice of Doom to mess with me, but he’s over there in the corner, buzzing around Pauline and Bob.

I focus on the keys so I don’t start sweating. Or crying. Two days till the concert.

RMG_Chatham_Piano

Pittsburgh, Pantsylvania

Randita

My sister, Randy, greets me outside her restaurant, Randita’s Organic Vegan Café, wearing her chef’s black smock. Randy has closed the place this evening so she can prepare for tomorrow’s catering event—vegan lasagna for eighty—and I am here to keep her company while she slices, dices, and stirs.

Randy’s husband, Dale, says hello and shows me his new guitar set-up in the corner of the restaurant. He runs the place with Randy during the week and performs on the weekends. Dale plays and sings “Walkin’ in Memphis” and I have one of those I remember that song moments of pure joy. Then he plays Willie Nelson’s “Valentine” and I envision weak-kneed female diners falling headfirst into plates of vegan shepherd’s pie.

No one can work wonders with fake chicken (chickun) the way my sister can. Her food tastes like a plant-based version of my childhood. Her music skills are limited—Randy’s one piano number is a march-tempo arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby”—but boy, can she cook. I’m proud of my sister. A survivor of domestic abuse, she raised four kids on her own and reinvented herself—at the age of fifty—by opening a vegan restaurant that has become a “go-to” place in a hip part of town. She found true love, married Dale the Guitar Guy, and has steered her boys to adulthood by providing a home filled with good food and love. She’s walkin’ in Memphis every single day.

Randy whips up some pea soup and we talk for hours about our kids, our parents, our shared good fortune. I wish I had her tenacity, she wishes she had my chill. If you mixed the two of us into one woman, you’d get a vegan-musician pit bull with a cranky stomach who takes a lot of naps.

One day until the concert.

Randita

Randita’s place

Roses and Daffodils

Debra McCloskey was one of my roommates at Chatham. Debra comes from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, where she was a local hero for having won the Lawrence County Junior Miss Pageant. The day she won, the Ellwood City newspaper ran a two-inch bold headline that said:

Debbie McCloskey wins Junior Miss!!!

At the bottom of the page, in fine print, was the single sentence:

Richard Nixon Resigns—story page 6

At Chatham, Deb was a political science and theater major. She had grown up in a blue-collar working-class home. Deb thought my family was rich because we had matching towels in the bathroom. I thought she was rich because she had an entire town worshiping at her feet.

My other roommate, Peggy Melozzi, was a Heinz Scholar with an English and theater double-major. She spent a semester at Oxford and was—and still is—a brilliant actor and writer. Back in 1976, I felt like the campus idiot around Peg and Deb, but their determination and ingenuity—during a time when I was obsessed with Carole King songs, spandex evening gowns, and Benson and Hedges Lights—gave me a much needed academic nudge.

Deb and Peg were frequent guests at my Hyatt piano gig. They sipped Tab and listened to me play, their shining eighteen-year-old faces beaming out at me from the smoky recesses of the lounge. They thought I was glamorous. I thought they were true intellectuals.

Today, forty years later, I’ve got them back for the afternoon.

We meet in Shadyside—back to the Casbah!—and try to make sense out of our crazy, busy lives. Deb is now a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice; Peg writes and produces corporate films. When we were nineteen we had a nightclub act called “Ladies” that we were sure would catapult us to stardom. Slight problem: Deb was the only one who could sing.

We rehearsed day and night, night and day. We thought we were great. Twenty-four hours before our first booking we scheduled a dress rehearsal. The only invited guest was a rather messy girl named Rita, a friend of Peg’s. Rita was the smartest girl in the school, and we were sure she’d be able to give us some constructive criticism. About halfway through our dress rehearsal, after we had brayed our way through a song from the musical Shenandoah called “Freedom,” Rita stood up and said—very calmly—“This is horrible.” Then she walked out.

We chose to ignore Rita, our parents, our music teachers, and our own common sense. We went on with the show.

Over the years Peggy Melozzi has said some funny things, but my absolute favorite? This, uttered with mild disgust in 1977, after realizing that our crack agent had advertised us at the Oakdale Army Support Base as snake-dancers: “I don’t know what snake-dancers do, but I’ll bet they don’t open with ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses.’ ”

At lunch today we wonder whether we should consider doing a revival tour with our sixty-year-old selves singing tunes like “The Party’s Over,” “Time to Say Goodbye,” or “Water Retention Blues.” A  comeback from careers we never had, complete with extra-large tour t-shirts (in slimming navy blue) that say Ladies: Last Chance. Instead of army support bases and Elk lodges, we could wear army support hose and perform in nursing homes, where we are still considered hot warm young things.

Instead of Danskin body suits we could wear caftans with bling. Think Zsa-Zsa.

We visit the Chatham campus and make our way to our old dorm room at Berry Hall, recently taken over by the admissions department. There’s an oversized desk where my bed used to be and a printer in the spot where Peg once slept.

“Where’s the tub?” asks Deb. “Where’s the Swamp?” Our private bathroom, plenty big enough for a mattress when we had visitors, always smelled vaguely marshy. Three freshly scrubbed young women now work in the Swamp, blissfully unaware of the debauchery that once occurred on that soggy floor. I swear I can still smell the mildewed carpet.

So much has changed here. Chatham went co-ed two years ago and young men play Frisbee on the campus green. The post office has moved; the Benedum mansion has been sold and turned into condos; the old swimming pool and bowling alley in the Andrew Mellow house are now conference rooms. The theater department is defunct, and a huge athletic center has sprung up behind the cafeteria, complete with a climbing wall. There are no female students climbing on the climbing wall. Maybe they’re in the library.

I’ve become a cliché—a middle age woman stewing over change. But in spite of the campus transformation, one key element feels the same as I stroll past the science building with these two remarkable women. I feel safe. And buoyed by their girlish love and loyalty.

It has taken me decades to appreciate the beauty of our college-girl bravery; our naive willingness to sing and dance and act like fools and just assume that the whole world would want to watch and listen. Where does that courage go when we grow up? Maybe it floats out the door one day when we’re not paying attention, and is gone forever. Or maybe it lurks outside, just around the corner, searching for a way to sneak back into our lives, through a window we’ve forgotten to close. I hope so. I still check my windows every day, and leave them open, just a crack.

We were great together. We still are.

Ladies

Ladies 4.0

The Concert

Bob picks me up early and we head to the hall, a three-minute drive up Woodland Road. I’ve been performing in Europe all these years and my parents have never seen my concert program.

“Exactly what are you going to play?” he says, glancing skeptically at my sketchy set list.

Once a dad, always a dad. He takes charge and loads in all of my merchandise. He has also schlepped an “extra” sound system in case the university system isn’t up to par.

“Students pay 40,000 a year to go to this place,” I say. “They should have a decent sound system.”

“You never know,” Bob says. “These places promise good sound and then you end up sounding like Elmer Fudd on helium. I’ve got you covered.”

Professor Pauline, in another Pittsburgh early-spring outfit—this time Easter grassy-green—latches onto Bob again. This gives me a chance to warm up, while Bob paces and worries about gypsies, tramps, and thieves. Dad is concerned about ticket sales at the door—who will collect the money, who will sell the merchandise, who will watch out for criminals and rogue audience members looking to shoplift my CDs and books.

“Dad,” I say. “In all the years I’ve been doing this no one has ever stolen anything.”

“Yeah, “he says. “But you live in Europe. Things are different over here.”

“Sometimes people leave extra money,” I say. “I even use the honor system—anyone who doesn’t have cash can pay later.”

Bob responds by raising one eyebrow. He has obviously been in the jazz business for too long. “Really?” he says.

“Really. CDs featuring tunes like “Greensleeves” and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” are not black-market heist items. I wouldn’t worry too much about security.”

People are starting to show up and it’s still an hour until show time. We’re sold out. I finish my warm-up, exit stage left, and hole up in a smaller recital hall. In spite of the barricade I’ve constructed with a couple of music stands, the door keeps slipping open, each time revealing a pop-up person from my past.  I need to go into prison mode and stop talking. I’m usually not this sensitive before a show, but a hometown performance has a lot of unclaimed baggage attached to it.

Deb shows up in my dressing room and puts her hands on my shoulders. “I am here to help,” she says. “Anything you need, I am here for you.”

I burst into tears and thank her. “Keep everyone out,” I say.

“You got it,” says Deb. She puts on her Justice face—smiling but firm—and heads out to run interference. I calm down, guzzle a liter of water, and prepare.

Twenty minutes later Bob knocks over the music stand barricade and crashes into the room. “You ready?” he says. “Everyone is here.”

“Ready,” I say.

Crowd

Roomful of memories

I listen to my introduction, make an entrance, and take a diva bow. The hall, filled with people from diverse phases of my life, feels like an intersection of then and now. It feels like home. It occurs to me that this might be the same audience that would show up at my funeral. I’ve had the funeral sensation before but for entirely different reasons—like the time a ninety-year old woman fell asleep in the front row during the first five minutes of my show, snored loudly, then woke up and shouted: “IS SHE DONE YET?”

I announce that the Steinway is the same piano I played in 1976; back when it was brand new.

“And I paid for it,” yells Bob from the front row. I have one heckler in the audience and it’s my father. Perfect.

I read my “Ladies” story, a story about a choking priest at the Redwood Motor Inn, and a story about my short-lived career as a piano-playing stripper in one of Don Brockett’s shows. We roll along and have a lot of fun—I’ve chosen tales that feature members of today’s audience. High school friends, college classmates, and teachers; Mister Rogers Neighborhood alumnae—including Neighbor Aber, Mayor Maggie, and Speedy Delivery Mr. McFeeley; musicians and actors from far and wide; childhood friends I haven’t seen since 1980. They’re all here.

As we come to the end of my program, I read this text:

I don’t have to return home to hear the musical voices of my Pittsburgh childhood. All I have to do is sit down and play. Every time I touch the piano, my teacher, Bill Chrystal, is there, reprimanding me for a careless mistake or sloppy fingering. Sometimes, not often enough, I catch myself playing a passage the way he would have played it, clear and full of life, and it takes my breath away.

I watch reruns of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and hear Johnny Costa playing, Fred Rogers singing, and my dad backing them up with his tasteful percussive nuances and perfect time. Watching that show is a melodic time tunnel, a chance to revisit the playing and composing giants of my youth.

Fred and Johnny, along with Bill Chrystal, Don Brockett, and my father have left behind a billion notes, a dizzying number of beautiful thoughts transposed into song, and a musical tapestry woven with threads of optimism and inspiration.  I’m reminded that each supportive person in a young person’s life—college music professor, parent, or friend—carries a torch that can spark the artistic flame that lives in every child’s heart.

I try to stay composed, but I get weepy as I near the end of the passage. So many of my heroes are gone. Of all the musicians I mentioned, Dad is the last one standing. And playing. Go, Bob.

When I start back to the Steinway, my mother reaches out from the front row and hands me a Kleenex. I am almost sixty years old, and my mom still makes sure I don’t get caught in a public place with a runny nose. Amused, exhausted, and extremely grateful, I float through the last song of the set.

Take me home, Jimbo. It’s bootiful here.

**

Coming in May: “I’ll Take Manhattan,” Part 3 of the Peripatetic, Poetic, and Chic series.

Many thanks to Bob and Ann Rawsthorne, Leslie Brockett, Pauline Rovkah, Dana DePasquale, Randy & Dale Cinski, Trey, Beau, & Cole Turnblacer, Debra Todd & Peggy Melozzi, Chatham University, Randita’s Organic Vegan Café, the old gang from Chatham Village, and all the wonderful people who showed up to celebrate music. I love you all.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!

Low Country Boil

Chickens and Antiques

I arrive in Charleston, South Carolina, on a balmy February evening after a fifteen-hour travel extravaganza that has led me from Frankfurt, Germany, through Detroit, and into the cushioned arms of Low Country hospitality. I’m here to play a couple of solo piano concerts. My host, a southern gentleman who works as a church organist, concert promoter, and hotel pianist, greets me at the airport. His name is Tom Bailey. I know from emails and phone calls he is neither an ax murderer nor a Trump supporter, but still, I worry. I’m tired enough that most of my trust issues evaporate into the salty night without a second thought as Tom, a dapper guy in a gorgeous suit, grabs my suitcase. We hop in his Nissan, and away we go.

Tom and his partner Steve live in Summerville in a rambling home they share with two dogs (Loopy and Buster) and twenty chickens. The chattering chickens reside outside and pretty much never shut up, but  I could sleep through anything at this point. I have a glass of wine, tour the labyrinth of chicken-themed, antique-filled rooms, and head up to the guest suite where I fall into a four-poster bed and dream of Pat Conroy and roosters.

To avoid performing with jet lag, I’ve arrived in Charleston six days before my first concert. Other, more seasoned artists don’t fret about travel fatigue, but I’m approaching my sixtieth birthday and I function best when my head is not plopping onto the keyboard.

Tom Bailey fills my pre-concert days with cocktail parties, dinners, and “meet and greet” sessions with fans and friends. He has created a minor buzz about me, so I get star treatment. This is something new and different, but I go along with the program and soak up the love. Being a sponge is fun. I eat too much and drink too much. I have cramps in my cheeks from smiling.

Note to my liberal friends: At no time during my stay does Lindsey Graham jump out from behind a potted palmetto. South Carolina might be a red state, but the citizens of the greater Charleston area, at least the ones I meet, are a civilized mish-mash of black-white-old-young-straight-gay-jewish-christian-muslim-happy.

It seems I have once again found myself in an American Bubbleland. I’ll take it.

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Loopy and Buster

My Funny Valentine

On Valentine’s Day, Tom—who knows a million songs and plays them all with bouncy bravado—works  the Swamp Fox Room at the Francis Marion Hotel, a five-star joint in downtown Charleston. Steve and Tom have invited three pianists—Nancy, Hermeine, and Patricia— to have dinner with me. They are stunning, aging, and funny; they are also kick-ass pianists. After dinner, Tom invites them to play. I listen in amazement as Hermeine romps through a version of “Embraceable You” with a Brahms-y rolling left hand that sounds like the tide. Wow. Hermeine plays more notes in four bars than I play in an entire set. As I take my turn at the piano I feel an inkling of impostor syndrome creeping under the collar of my stretchy black travel dress.

I play tinka tinka and hope my minimalistic approach will carry me through. Hermeine, Patricia, and Nancy are Charleston’s Golden Piano Girls. I feel like I’ve known them forever. That’s the nice thing about the Musician’s Club—we’re family, even if we’re meeting for the first time. I’m in a party of seven, and five of us play the piano. Among us, we have three hundred years of stories.

How many pianists does it take to play “My Funny Valentine?” Evidently, all of us.

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Tom @ the piano.

Miss Emily

Emily Remington, as far as I know, is the world’s most senior Piano Girl. One hundred years old and still snappy! After turning down the volume on her Vladimir Ashkenazy recording (more Brahms), she greets Tom and me in her apartment. We happily sip afternoon cocktails, eat crackers and brie, and trade tales about the music business. Miss Emily, appalled by the current political situation in the USA, reminisces about the choirs she conducted in 1962, one black, one white. After Kennedy’s assassination, she fought to integrate the choirs and have them sing together for his memorial. A teenage Jessye Norman was a soloist for the performance. Tom says that Miss Emily, fearing the hatred of white supremacists, stood in front of Jessye during her solo to protect her from crowd violence.

“To think we’ve returned to such awful thinking,” she says. “It depresses me.”

I remind Miss Emily of Carrie Fisher’s brilliant comment: Take your broken heart and make it into art. “That’s what you did, Miss Emily, back in 1962,” I say. “And other artists will follow in your footsteps.”

“At least we still have that,” she says. “Music.”

We discuss musician wardrobe malfunctions—she once had a strapless dress fall down while conducting a symphony orchestra—and I lament about my failure to find a strapless bra that hoists the twins to a respectable height without cutting off my oxygen.

“Well, I have a gift for you!” she says. She stands up, and with the aid of a walker, cruises into her bedroom, where she reaches into the top drawer of her lingerie chest and pulls out a black strapless bra. “Here,” she says. “Take it. My strapless bra days are behind me.”

I like that she had that bra at the ready, as if she was willing to slip on a slinky sequined dress, grab her gig bag, and hit the boards running. One hundred years old, and still thinking like a Piano Girl.

Note to opera buffs: Jessye Norman sang to Miss Emily on her 100th birthday.

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Me, age 59. Miss Emily, age 100. She wins.

The Cape

Tom and Steve take me to a vintage clothing shop and buy me a full-length velvet cape with a red satin lining and beaded shoulders. Perhaps my nun-ish wardrobe has disappointed them, or maybe they are hoping I’ll make a Liberace entrance at my concert on Saturday.

“Tom,” I say. “I don’t think I can wear this while I play.” I yank the jeweled clasp that pinches the fat on my neck and threatens to strangle me. Death by beading.

“No, no,” he says. “You walk onstage and then drop the cape dramatically next to the piano before you sit down. Fabulous!”

Tom and Steve are fabulous. I now own the cape. I wonder if it has super powers. Sure, Liberace liked his capes, but so did James Brown and Batman. I am in good company.

Note to soul fans: James Brown, born in South Carolina, employed a “Cape Man.” Cape Man’s soul function was to run onstage when Brown was collapsing from excessive emotional exertion and too many hip thrusts. Cape Man would dramatically place the cape on Brown’s slumped and twitching shoulders, thus bestowing Brown with enough energy to go on with the show.

I am currently taking applications for my own personal Cape Man.

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With Steve & Tom. My Cape Men.

The Surprise

I am sitting with Tom in a Summerville restaurant called Oscar’s. He tells me we are meeting “some agent” for lunch. I go along with the program because at this point I’m on remote control and know that anyone Tom introduces to me will be funny, smart, and entertaining. Even an agent.

Tom tells me about his funeral gigs. Sometimes he plays three or four funerals a week, in addition to his hotel and church jobs. When I ask him if the funerals get depressing he says: “No. The organ is in a closet and I have a video feed of whoever is conducting the service. No casket viewing, no grieving people—I just go in my closet and play the gig. Sometimes I take a sandwich with me.”

This morning, while Tom was playing in his funeral closet, I called Robin Spielberg, my piano BFF, just to check in and tell her what’s going on. She would love it here! Robin lives in rural Pennsylvania and I could tell she was in a vehicle so I asked where she was going. “It’s a trip to nowhere,” she said. It’s been almost ten years since we’ve seen each other, even though we communicate daily. Busy, busy, Piano Girl lives. I miss her.

The server asks about our drink orders. Wine or no wine? With all the socializing and bar-hopping the week has turned a bit hazy around the edges, but that’s a good thing. I’m often accused of exaggeration (I like to think of it as a gift for fiction) and I’m sure no one from my real life will believe the things I’ve been experiencing in Charleston—the chickens, Miss Emily, the cape, the way Charleston teems with musicians and gigs . . . I order the wine and chat with Tom about the piano business and funerals, waiting for “some agent” to show up.

Surprise! In walks Robin Spielberg and her handsome husband, Larry, who actually is a talent agent (one of the good guys). Knock me over with a feather. How Tom and Robin managed to keep this a secret baffles me. I usually sniff out covert activity weeks before it happens. Ask my children. In the spy versus spy game, I am queen. Not this time. I have been out-played by two piano players.

We squeal, we cry, we are a surprise-party cliché. We order more wine. Spielberg is beautiful and full of life and understands so much about what I do for a living. She is here and I am over the moon happy. The first thing I do when we get back to Tom’s house is show her the cape. She agrees: It’s fabulous.

The next day we drink dill-pickle flavored Bloody Marys, eat a little lunch, then go to a dress store and buy matching southern belle evening gowns. On sale. Now I have something to wear with the cape. And the bra. And if anyone ever calls us to do a two-piano show, we’re all set.

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Spielberg & Goldsby, 4 hands sounding like 2.

The Concert

The first concert takes place at St. Theresa the Little Flower Catholic Church in Summerville. Tom runs a series there, called Third Sunday at Three.

Steinway has provided a gorgeous Model B. It sits front and center under a glorious (but gruesome) mosaic of Jesus on the cross. I’m not sure this is the appropriate place to tell stories about my life as a cocktail lounge pianist, but I’m here, hundreds of people have shown up and I figure I’ve got enough  spirituality in my music to make up for my atheist tendencies. Live and let live and all that.

My dressing room is the priest’s vestry. Forget about the cape! Robes and scarves in glorious colors hang in the priest’s closet. And look at those rosary beads. This is bling city. I’m suspicious of most organized religion, but I’ve always been a fan of Pope-wear. I’m temped to borrow the lime green cassock for my entrance but Spielberg talks me out of it. Look at us: a Jewish gal from New Jersey and a Pittsburgh atheist with German residency hanging out in the priest’s vestry of a South Carolina catholic church.

Ah, music. The great unifier.

We gaze at the special sink for holy water but we do not drink.

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The concert goes well. My hands are cold for the first chunk of music (the vestry was chilly) but I recover and warm up for the rest of the program. The audience rolls along with me, laughing when they’re supposed to. I read my story about playing an endless version of the Titanic theme at a private party in a German castle, and Tom sits in at the piano for me and provides the perfect soundtrack. People here love him, and because they love him, they accept me.

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New fans!

I sign a lot of books and CDs and head to the post-concert shindig at Tom and Steve’s home. Eighty people show up for the party. Tom has hired service staff and a pianist. The food is plentiful; the bar is well stocked. They serve a Low Country boil called Frogmore Stew, which I am happy to report does not contain frogs—just giant shrimp, potatoes, corn on the cob, and sausage. Maybe it should be called Frogless Stew. I drink a goblet of wine and pose for photos. I’m starving, but I can’t very well eat corn on the cob while I’m having my photo taken. That’s a little too Ellie Mae Clampet, even for me.

Note: Posing for a cell phone photo takes three times longer than posing for a real camera, especially when senior citizens are involved. Commonly heard phrases include:

It’s all black.

It didn’t click.

Where do I push?

It’s all fuzzy.

The Medical Emergency

I go on the veranda to have my photo taken with a guy named Chris, just as Miss Sarah, a retired volunteer librarian using a walker, struggles to get down the steps. Miss Sarah is elderly and has just had a knee replacement. Miss Sarah’s husband takes her walker and his own cane and tries to follow her down the steps. He is also carrying multiple copies of my books—way too much stuff for a nonagenarian on a staircase with an opiate-impaired wife.

I grab Chris and we get hold of Miss Sarah just before she takes a dive. I’m in front of her; Chris is behind her. We get her down the steps, but she is dizzy and nauseated and ready to toss her Frogmore cookies. I know this feeling all too well. It will pass, but her advanced age calls for something more proactive than a reassuring pat on the back. I don’t want anyone, especially sweet Miss Sarah, going down for the count on the night of my big event. Piano Girl Program Kills Popular Librarian is not a headline I care to see.

“Tom!” I yell, after running back into the house. It’s hard to find him in this French-farce maze of rooms. “Miss Sarah needs medical attention. Call an ambulance!”

“Who?”

“Miss Sarah! Miss Sarah! The librarian! On the veranda!”

I feel like I’ve been dropped into the second act of a Tennessee Williams play. I’m even developing a slight twang.

The paramedics come, a little too slowly for my taste, but hey, it’s the south. Miss Sarah is fine—she has experienced an opiate-induced blood pressure drop—and will be delivered back to her rehab facility. One of her fellow librarians asks me to sign Miss Sarah’s books before they drive away. This should be the last thing anyone is worrying about, but who am I to argue?  I love this woman. Get well soon, Miss Sarah!

I glance at the waiting paramedics and scrawl my signature as quickly as possible. I never get that photo with Chris. But I do snag some corn when the crowd thins out.

Book signing

The Ultimate Music Machine

Steinway & Sons Charleston and BMW sponsor the second event, held at a sleek and shiny BMW showroom on the outskirts of the city. David Vail, Steinway Director, delivers a Model “D” for the concert. I’m more comfortable here than I was yesterday at the church. For one thing, I don’t have Jesus hanging over my head for the comedy portion of my show. And I prefer my audience in chairs rather than pews. Tonight’s audience is close-up and a little punchy from the cocktail reception. The cars on the periphery of the stage area, in gleaming shades of powder and pewter, look pretty and powerful.

Perfect.

Miss Emily, our resident centenarian, wearing a festive zebra-print frock, perches in the second row with a glass of wine. She missed my church gig yesterday because she produces her own concert series at the senior residence where she lives. When I’m introduced, I bow at her feet in tribute. Then I wonder what kind of bra she is wearing. This woman knows her undergarments.

I glide through the show, marveling at the instrument in front of me. I can’t play a wrong note on this piano—Steinway technician John Krucke has groomed it till it sings. I could stay here forever. But I don’t because the show is over and we have dinner reservations and I’m hungry.

Before we leave I talk to audience member Charles Miller, the organist who jumped in to accompany President Obama during his unanticipated “Amazing Grace” moment at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church memorial service. I watched that ceremony live from Germany, and although I was weeping, I remember noting the amazing grace of that amazingly graceful organist. He overcame his grief, did his job, and lifted all of us to a better place—a beautiful moment in a tragic setting, buoyed by the bravery of one musician.

“You are my hero,” I say to Charles after my concert. “I’m curious. What key did Obama sing in?”

“He was between E and Eb,” says Charles. “But I pushed him down to Eb.”

Wow. No cape necessary. While I’m talking to Charles and signing books, a hugely talented fourteen-year old named Caleb sits down at the “D” and starts playing Bach. My God—this room is swollen with music. Caleb balances at the beginning of his career; Miss Emily has leaned comfortably into the end of hers. The rest of us stand somewhere in the middle, grateful benefactors of our musical pasts, protectors of what’s to come.

Is everyone in this town a musician? Seems like.

It’s time to move on. Thank you, Charleston. You have plenty of music in your fine city, but you’ve welcomed me as if you can never get enough. Your southern charm took me by surprise.

Next stop: Pittsburgh. But first, let’s eat.

Note to music fans: The former mayor of Charleston, Joseph Riley, set out to make Charleston a world-class city by focusing on the city’s vibrant cultural life. It worked. Music is everywhere and venues—both large and small—are full. The current mayor of Charleston, John Tecklenburg, is a jazz pianist.

 *****

Special thanks to Tom Bailey, Steve Jackson. Robin Spielberg, Larry Kosson, David Vail, John Krucke, David Archer, Pat Huffman, and Emily Remington. And much gratitude to Tom Bailey’s circle of friends for making me feel so welcome. Can’t wait to see you all again! 

Coming next month: The Pittsburgh Party

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!

Feathers

Hope swoops into our lives—a random, fluttering presence we grab when our heavy hearts need a back-up plan. Hope tilts the navy sky and pierces dark corners with jagged spikes of radiance; it frees imaginations, builds footbridges, and boosts our bruised and broken spirits with a gentle quiver of its powerful wings.

Life’s political cacophony might pummel us into a fitful trance, but hope’s quiet birdsong awakens our deep desire to do good, to do right, to do anything at all to chase away wickedness.

The Women’s March on Washington took that quiet birdsong—an effortless melody that too many of us took for granted—and arranged it for four million voices, giving us a bold, bashing, international choral performance that inspired not only hope, but action.

On Inauguration Day Melania Trump, channeling Jackie Kennedy and The Hunger Games, wore pale blue, double-faced cashmere Ralph Lauren. Kellyanne Conway, channeling Pennsatucky and Winnie the Pooh, wore Gucci. Both women sported stiletto heels. Ivanka de la Trump wore Oscar de la Renta. Hillary Clinton wore a gleaming white pantsuit and an air of dignified resignation that she might have borrowed from my closet, or yours.

The peaceful protesters the next day—women who regularly climb small mountains and outrun wolves—wore double-faced fleece from Target or Timberland. They wore warm socks and heavy Keen hiking boots or thick-soled sport shoes. They came equipped to brave the cold, march a mile or two, and kick some butt if they had to. They brought their daughters and their mothers. They wore pink pussy hats and they grabbed back.

They are my heroes.

Note to the bullies: Never, ever piss off a woman with high moral standards, a set of knitting needles, and sensible shoes. You’ll get a gazillion misshapen hats, a serious movement to protect our fundamental rights, and four million protesters. You’ll get an overdue call for change and it will sound like nothing you’ve heard before.

We shout, we sing, we march. Four million of our sisters (and brothers) protesting. Think of that.

We crave hope like we crave sunlight or fresh air or clean water (all of which are at risk). To keep on keepin’ on we need to keep our dreams alive. So we tighten our laces and put one boot in front of another in the long, muddy march through a political catastrophe. Bullies line our path—pop-up purveyors of racist rhetoric, hell bent on tossing stink-bombs at anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into an American, white, heterosexual, Christian, male order.

America first, indeed. How about humanity first? How about decency first? Love first? Hope first? These work for me.

The marchers have given me hope that we are witnessing not the beginning of a new, evil world-order, but the end of an era of bare-assed hatred. We need to steel ourselves, though; bullies—especially when bloated by arrogance—never surrender without a fight. Remember junior high school? It’s like that, but with nuclear codes.

A few facts (not the alternative kind): We outnumber the bullies. We are smarter, more patient, more diplomatic. We carry hope in our clear plastic travel pouches instead of fear. The bullies’ dissonant shrieks might temporarily drown out the intricate and subtle symphony of human potential, but to me their cries sound more like the last raspy gasps of bigotry. The bullies are not going down without struggle. But they are going down, down, all the way down. They are, after all, bottom feeders.

We have wings.

Congressman John Lewis, who often speaks about the necessity of making “good trouble,” said: “It is my hope that people today will see that, in another time, in another period, when we saw the need for people to speak up, to organize, to mobilize, and to do something about injustice, we came together.”

So we march. Peaceful protest braids grace with determination and returns dignity and hope to all of us.

Kundgebung fuer Frauenrechte "Women's March" am Brandenburger Tor in Berlin nach die Investitur von Donald Trump. Copyright: Florian Boillot, 21.01.2017

Vietnamese-American My Linh Kunst marching in Berlin.

Hope’s presence, when it lands like a sparrow in our outstretched palms or on our pink-capped heads, might feel feather-light and fickle, but—think of this—a sparrow’s miniscule heart beats 460 times a minute. Fragile. Fleeting. Strong. Strong enough to get us through this storm if we rise together, speak up, shout out, and keep marching. Sneakers and boots on the ground. Step lively, ladies and gentlemen.

We stand shoulder-to-shoulder, arms to the sky, signs aloft. We sing and bang on drums. We are a loud-mouthed and luminescent beacon of humanity—a landing strip for hope’s flight of fancy.

Hope—never invisible and never mute—grows wings in improbable places. We may be stuck on the ground, but, thanks to hope, we arc toward the light and open our minds to necessary change.

Feathers, like whispered poetry or beautiful music, can drift from even the murkiest clouds.

*****

This version of “Feathers” is dedicated to the memory of my dear aunt, Jean Curtis Ewing, who died on January 27th, 2017 at the age of ninety-four. She remained hopeful until the end. Purple was her favorite color, but her life looked a lot like a rainbow.

Small sections of “Feathers” first appeared in the book Hope is the Thing with Feathers: Portraits of Human Trafficking Survivors and Change-Makers, a project sponsored by STAND UP Against Human Trafficking Symposium held in The Hague on Octover 8-9, 2016 (My-Linh Kunst, Photographer; Mary Adams, Project Director). The message of hope continues to serve us well.

The Faces of Hope Portrait Gallery:

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Christine Funke (plus one) marching in Heidelberg. Photo by Jody Tull.

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Pedro with his daughter marching in Manhattan.

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Those Munger Sisters marching in NYC.

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Deborah, getting ready to march in Paris with a very French P-Hat.

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My Dutch friends.

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Mary Adams marching in Amsterdam.

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Holli and Hannah marching in Washington.

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The Moede Sisters marching in Hamburg.

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Michele and Willow Cozzens marching in Washington.

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Silke marching in Amsterdam. The future.

*****

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!